Controversy surrounds hiring of air traffic controllers - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Controversy surrounds hiring of air traffic controllers

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

A dramatic change in the FAA's hiring practices for air traffic controllers has grounded the career plans of a lot of highly qualified applicants, and there are some concerns it could put the flying public at risk.

The change, which went into effect earlier this year, has left many students in a precarious position as they get ready to graduate. Students have built up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and now could be shut out of their career.

If you are traveling by plane, you want the best qualified people sitting in the control towers guiding jets across the skies.

For the past 24 years, most controllers got their training at one of 36 universities across the country with an air traffic controller program. Lewis University in Romeoville is one of them. But earlier this year, the FAA opened up the applicant pool to anyone off the street -- no schooling necessary.

Chris Thurlby is a 2012 high honors graduate from Lewis, with $85,000 dollars in student loans, but very little chance of getting a job.

“What infuriates me is that they're allowed to just change things up like this to abandon a program that's been tried and true,” said Thurlby.

He and other would be controllers no longer take the AT-SAT, an aptitude test of aviation skills, but instead must take an online biographical questionnaire. It's part of what is widely viewed as an affirmative action push, and one the Air Traffic Controllers Union calls flawed.

That test disqualified and frustrated Mark Jacobs, a 4.0 student who scored a 98 on the AT-SAT.

“They say the biographical questionnaire is meant to determine your suitability based on an aviation background or education or work experience, all of which I have, therefore you are not qualified,” said Jacobs.

A transportation expert weighed in on the situation as well.

“This is a high stress job, clearly the FAA has got some agenda here besides just finding in my opinion the best talent, that does raise some alarms,” said Joe Schwieterman.

Controller trainees are paid $17,000 a year and then make $37,000 once they start working, but those salaries can increase into the six figure range.

The Air Traffic Controller Union is raising concerns about the new hiring plan because with 3,000 controllers eligible to retire, but only half that many currently in training, many qualified candidates who are ready to go now are not being considered.

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